It feels like equity is the new buzzword. It has become the new “diversity.”
My question is, “How are you defining equity?”
I ask because it feels like we have different definitions.
I define equity as elevating the voices of those most impacted by disparities, often people and communities of color, and then working to close disparity gaps. It means removing barriers and acknowledging that different groups need different services to have a fair playing field.
Equity work requires action, taking risks, and acknowledging sometimes we screw-up. But after a screw up if we are humble and we are willing to learn, we achieve equity. Social justice work requires persistence.
There are many aspects, nuances, and contexts to consider when learning about how to approach equity. Here are two recommendations, or rather, two things to avoid. Being aware of these will be helpful when trying to incorporate equity into your collective impact work.
1- The Best Way to Avoid Equity Bombs? Don’t Set Them Off
Can we call a truce?
If we can stop using the term equity in a way that doesn’t actually mean equity, then I’ll stop dropping equity bombs.
What is an equity bomb?
Equity bombs are comments where someone, often a person of color, has to call out the inequity taking place.
If you’re wondering what that might look like, the pre-bomb conversation often starts like this:
Person A: “We’re doing these really great things in our collective impact effort. The programs in our area are full and they have wait lists. This means we’re making progress on our equity goals.”
Person B (aka the Equity Bomber): “Do you know who is attending the program? If these are children already enrolled in three sports, going to the library, and whose parents are on various committees, that isn’t equity. What are we doing to reach children who aren’t enrolled in programs and who may be failing out of school or struggling? Are you asking their parents what their children need to succeed?”
Everyone in the room sits and shifts uncomfortably, and then tries to forget what they just heard. They move on without acknowledging the equity bomb, and the person who dropped the equity bomb wants to crawl under the table.
Dropping equity bombs isn’t productive. For the person being bombed it puts them on the defensive about equity, and for the person dropping the equity bomb it has the potential to marginalize them from the group.
We can all do more to reduce the need for equity bombing.
We can avoid equity bombs if we stop thinking about equity as a standalone item. The principles of equity need to be embedded throughout an entire collective impact effort. For example, some questions to consider:
- Are meetings diverse? Are affected communities represented in ways that values their participation?
- Who is able to make decisions at meetings?
- Is active listening and good facilitation practiced so that all voices are heard?
Finally, are systems changing to get more equitable results? The design of systems will dictate the results achieved. The more equity infused into the system, the more equitable the results.
Let’s create an equity-bomb free zone. Let’s all commit to doing better by infusing equity into everything we do.
2- Avoiding Fakequity
Collective impact work is about thinking big and for the long term. Equity work requires the same big long term thinking—what systems can we change to get better results?
Simply looking at demographic data and impact statements is fakequity (pronounced “fake-quity”). True equity is looking at a problem and figuring out what systems can be changed to get to more equitable results. Fakequity is keeping the system the same, but slapping an equity label on a project.
If you’re not striving to change the system that is preventing equitable outcomes in your community, how are you practicing equity?
Here’s an example to illustrate fakequity:
Wow Excellent Education is a two year old collective impact effort working to improve education in an urban area. After spending a year planning and gathering people together, the effort decided to tackle attendance. In particular they focused on Somali children because they are falling behind in school. Yet as they developed their strategies and plans, they didn’t engage with the local Somali community. None of the task force members are from the Somali community.
At a meeting the head of a local Somali youth organization asks an equity related question:
“You want our children because you think you can help them, but you feel the road is too steep for us, as parents and as a community. Our understanding is you don’t want to work with parents; you don’t want our culture and our heritage. If we feel excluded and you don’t want to understand us, how are you going to help our children?”
Can you spot the fakequity?
The fakequity is in having the collective impact effort say they are working on behalf of a group and trying to fix a community problem without having true representation from the community.
As a friend told me about our work: “If we’re not at the table, it means we’re on the menu.” While that may seem harsh, why not open up your table and share? Equity means we share—we share power, resources, and we share of ourselves. In the example the head of the local Somali organization would love to share her culture with others, but very few mainstream leaders take her up on her invitations. She has amazing thoughts and stories to share with those who listen and act upon her suggestions. I’ve watched too many leaders dismiss her for one reason or another, or they try to take advantage of her knowledge by constantly taking and not sharing resources or paying for her consultation.
Now, does that sound like equity to you?
In order to have equitable practices we need to build trust. Equity requires honest relationships and long term support of each other.
How to avoid fakequity and embrace equity?
- Share—look at the resources your collective impact has. Do you have access to great funders, policy makers, or money? Share those relationships and funds.
- Listen—it may sound easy, but it is actually harder to practice. Are you listening to what people are saying and not saying? Check your understanding by saying “I heard you say this. Did I get it correct?” Also, be quiet and let others talk.
- Learn—learning about equity is a lifelong effort. Getting to equitable outcomes takes time: hard slow work=equity, fast easy work=fakequity. Find a community of people who can help you think and talk about race and equity. I meet monthly with a group of colleagues, now friends, where we talk and problem solve things that come up around equity. I value their consul and friendship, we laugh a lot, periodically sigh, and I walk away much smarter.
Looking for more examples on what fakequity might look like?
Fans of Vu Le’s Nonprofit with Balls blog may have seen the fakequity chart from his post Are you guilty of Fakequity? If so, what to do about it. We are also sharing what fakequity and equity look like on our Fakequity facebook page.
We have also developed this chart (warning, it has swear words) as a tool to map the progression from Fakequity to Equity.
I’ve told you of some of my experiences with the term equity, of equity bombs and fighting fakequity. Please share your experiences—we all learn best when we are open and honest about our experiences. No one gets it right all the time, I know I don’t. I’d love to hear from you on what is working or maybe we can problem solve together. Please feel free to share in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Special thank you to Heidi Schillinger of Equity Matters for her thoughts and perspectives.